The Two One Kinds of Libertarians

Matt BruenigMatt Bruenig wrote a very interesting article a few years ago, Two Different Kinds of Libertarians. The two kinds of libertarians are “procedural justice” and “consequentialist.” It is easier to just call them “theoretical” and “practical,” and so I will. Supposedly, the practical libertarians are just looking to maximize utility and they just look out at the big bad world of ideas and find that libertarian ideas are the ones that make everyone best off. The theoretical ones start from the theory that no one has the right to take another’s property, and work out from there.

I think this is a false dichotomy. No one reading this blog can question but that I think that people decide and then rationalize. It doesn’t work the other way around in most cases. There is lots of science to back me up on this. In fact, this is why I believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. I greatly value my reasoning ability. I hate the idea that my beliefs just bubble up from deep in my brain and then my higher brain functions set about justifying why they are right.

As a result of this, I know that libertarians are generally libertarians because it feels right. So I think the libertarians who justify their beliefs on theoretical arguments are no different than libertarians who justify them on practical arguments. And it just so happens that I have experience with this. If you can talk seriously with a practical libertarian and convince him that, for example, the minimum wage does not cost jobs and will actually stimulate economic growth, he will not stop being a libertarian. He will just change his arguments from practical to theoretical.

Bruenig says that he has seen a shift from practical to theoretical libertarianism. But this is just because he hangs out with far smarter people than most of us do. I mean — Good God! — he mentioned Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. I assure you that people are not standing around at Libertarian Party conventions discussing Democracy: The God That Failed. All you really have to do is listen to Majority Report, where libertarians call in all the time. And they always make practical arguments, although when losing, they will sometimes back up into theoretical arguments.

So really, all that has happened is that the high end thinkers of libertarianism have had to retreat into theory. That alone speaks incredibly poorly of libertarianism. The truth is that most people are not theory-based when it comes to governance. They aren’t going to pick a political ideology on the basis that it has a good theoretical foundation. They what practical results. So the fact that the best thinkers in the movement have abandoned it as a means of enriching everyone means it will never be adopted in a free country. This may be why Hoppe has argued so strongly against democracy.

But as Bruenig has pointed out in a different article, even the theory of libertarianism is filled with holes, Non-Aggression Never Does Any Argumentative Work at Any Time. This is a response to what is by far the most common theoretical libertarian argument. The non-aggression principle (NAP) holds that it is always wrong to commit aggression against another. Libertarians use this as an excuse for saying no one should have the right to their person or property. There are very many problems with this, but here is Bruenig’s take:

Suppose I come on to some piece of ground that you call your land. Suppose I don’t believe people can own land since nobody makes land. So obviously I don’t recognize your claim that this is yours. You then violently attack me and push me off.

What just happened? I say that you just used aggressive violence against me. You say that actually you just used defensive violence against me. So how do we know which kind of violence it is?

You say it is defensive violence because under your theory of entitlement, the land belongs to you. I say it is aggressive violence because under my theory of entitlement, the land does not belong to you. So which is it?

If you have half a brain, you see what is going on. The word “aggression” is just defined as violence used contrary to some theory of entitlement. The word “defense” is just defined as violence used consistent with some theory of entitlement. If there is an underlying dispute about entitlement, talking about aggression versus defense literally tells you nothing.

In other words: the argument is about our approach to property rights. It has nothing to do with “aggression.” The truth is that the government uses aggression to enforce property rights. Of course, it is also true that all land currently owned was, at some point, stolen either from the commons or from other individuals. So it is hard to make the argument from non-aggression when the current state of property rights depends upon aggression. Libertarians, therefore, must argue in favor of property rights. I think most don’t do this because it doesn’t even occur to them that property rights are anything but God given. And those who get beyond that find that the issue gets incredibly murky.

Take, for example, Ayn Rand and her ignorant and racist claim that the founders of the United States were justified in stealing land from the native peoples. As I discussed in Ayn Rand and Indians, this is simply the claim that “might makes right.” She decided that what the native peoples were doing with their land was not valid and so that justified the European settlers taking it. This is very much like my arguing that I ought to be able to use a gun to steal cars from old people, because I drive better and can make better use of their cars.

The bottom line of all of this is that libertarians are hung up on an infantile notion that no one has a right to take their stuff. And then they justify it based upon whatever kind of arguments make sense to them. For most people, those would be the practical arguments. Very few people find the theoretical arguments very compelling. But libertarians will use whatever arguments are needed. And if even the theoretical arguments fail them, they can fall back on the real argument that animates all the higher level nonsense, “Mine!”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

23 thoughts on “The Two One Kinds of Libertarians

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  4. Not having as much experience with libertarians, I guess this is what frustrates me most. It’s exactly the same as how Republicans shifted from “rich people tax cuts benefit all” to “we need to stop punishing the job creators,” from a practical to a moral argument.

    You can claim both, if data supports your argument on the practical side. You can claim one or the other. What you can’t do is presume an intellectual or moral superiority by claiming either the practical or moral side as an absolute, then switching sides when it suits you.

    Changing your mind is fine. Vacillating between contradictory justifications for self-absorption is borderline schizophrenic.

    • Yeah, this behaviour is what Bruenig calls “Libertarian Whack-A-Mole”. It’s similar to the “Motte and Bailey” argumentation which has become one of the go-to tactics of the Identitarian so-called Left.

      • Yeah, this is brilliant. But generally, anyone who has had to talk to libertarians knows this. They always tap dance around this stuff because despite their claims they have not thought this stuff through.

        Here is the article: Capitalism Whack-A-Mole.

        • Right you are, and that header reminds me of a question: To someone who is neither, is there any practical difference between a big-L Libertarian and a Capitalist?

          • I don’t think so. Elizabeth Warren might say she is a capitalist, but I consider that more politics. (Although capitalists really should listen to her because she is probably the only way they are going to save the system. They won’t of course. FDR saved capitalism in this country but he is hated on the right. These people are beneath stupid and ungrateful.)

            People who claim to be “capitalists” are generally right-wing extremists. The truth is that there is no such thing as pure capitalism. There are only mixed economic systems. Only the most hard-core leftists believe in an economic system that doesn’t at least have some free markets. I’m all for free markets in bars and ice cream shops.

            • I’d never buy Budweiser, because I find it a terrible beer. If someone gave me a six-pack as a present, I’d water my plants with it. And I think anyone who limits their beer palate to Budweiser is seriously shortchanging themselves. But, their choice.

              If it turned out tomorrow that Budweiser has been flavoring their beer with formaldehyde, I’d demand legal action. Even though I was “clever” enough not to drink it.

              Nobody’s clever enough to have total information on everything. Libertarians always assume that in a world of utter scam artists, they’ll win every time. Like some kind of fucking James Bond who can defeat an assassin, land a broken plane in mountainous unpopulated desert, and go “I know a great restaurant near here, we can just make dinner.” (Actual Bond scene, BTW.)

              It’s a delightful fantasy, we all want to feel cleverer than everyone. It’s exceedingly immature.

  5. OK, let’ assume Bruenig’s right; that “non-aggression never does any argumentative work at any time.” So let’s leave it out. Bruenig comes onto this land that the other person calls his own, the person tries to push him, Bruenig pushes him back, and they get into a pushing match. Which one would you say is right or wrong? Or are they both right, or both wrong? And why?

    • You clearly don’t know what Bruenig is getting at. He’s simply pointing out that libertarians constantly falling back on the NAP as an argument for their philosophy is meaningless. It isn’t worth talking about the NAP. If you talk to libertarians, you will hear over and over that they don’t believe in aggression against other people. One must actually decide what kind of aggression is acceptable. What’s really going on is that libertarians are always falling back on status quo thinking. They pick a system of ownership that helps themselves. It’s easier to pretend that they take the high ground. They are against aggression. But they aren’t. So libertarians should stop talking about the NAG because it is meaningless. With rare exceptions, everyone is for just aggression — that’s why we are in favor of laws against theft. So the question is what make an act just. But instead, libertarians use the bogus notion that they are against aggression. They aren’t. They are just little brains unwilling to do the messy and hard work that political theory requires.

  6. Yes, I know very well that progressives like Bruenig want us to talk not about aggression, but about some idea of “just aggression” or “acceptable aggression” instead; which is why he claims that the term ‘aggression’ is meaningless. But his arguments for that claim depend precisely on how he defines ‘aggression’, which is enough to show that the term is doing argumentative work. Sometimes he argues that property crimes, from trespassing to theft to vandalism to arson to bombing, are not aggression, by defining aggression to be only touching another person’s body. (The definition you buy into, I notice, when you call laws against theft “just aggression”). At other times, he argues that merely owning things is aggressive by definition because it takes away people’s rights to use those things. He tries to reconcile those two different definitions by writing scenarios in which property owners do nothing but attack other people: indeed, he even states at one point that people buy homes only so they can attack trespassers. But my point isn’t that he’s using inconsistent definitions of the term, but that his argument does depend on his definition(s); which shows that it is not meaningless at all.

    • Nope. Bruenig doesn’t argue for a specific definition himself. He just points out the fact that Libertarians try to erect an entire logical structure on an axiom that is internally inconsistent (and by the by, has no connection to the real world – but that’s a different discussion). The whole NAP proposition is fundamentally silly. It isn’t a serious argument, merely a self serving rationalization.

      I once ran across an essay from famous Libertarian Murray Rothbard in which he attempted to address these contradictions and justify property rights (land ownership) ab initio. Sadly, the best Rothbard could do in the end was to assert, in so many words, that his formulation was essential to the whole Libertarian project and must therefore be accepted without proof. The article was memorable in only two respects – because Rothbard is taken to be a credible thinker, and because it is the only time I’ve ever run across any Libertarian making a serious effort to answer Georgist objections to land ownership.

      • Thanks for this! I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t responded. It is amazing how prone to strawman arguments libertarians are. I’ve mentioned this Bruenig article to many libertarians and they inevitably don’t read (or understand) the article and try to fake it. I happen to think that Bruenig is one of the great young minds of our civilization. But it doesn’t take much to understand his arguments. I think I can roughly classify libertarians into two groups. There are the off-line libertarians who are just embarrassed conservatives. Then there are the online libertarians who only read other online libertarians. Their arrogance that they know everything is staggering.

  7. Eh. As with so many other young nerdy smart-asses, the teenage me was rather taken with Libertarian “logical” cloud castles. Reading Ayn Rand went a long way towards curing me of that particular folly. No, I don’t mean her novels – she was a terrible writer and I never got past the first couple of pages of any of them. As it happens though, there was a paperback series being issued at the time (late 1960’s) which contained pretty much all of her published essays plus annotations and additions by guys such as Nathaniel Brandon. So down the rabbit hole I went.

    With each additional volume and each new elaboration of her theories, the smell of something rotten grew stronger and Rand’s rationalizations thinner and more rickety. It took several more decades of reading and observation before I really understood the source of that smell, but even at the time I could see that her propositions had very little to do with the real world. I know that many Libertarians will counter that they are not Objectivists themselves, but nonetheless they almost all display a similar syndrome which mostly boils down to a stubborn adherence to faulty axioms.

    • Sure. I vaguely remember liking “The Fountainhead” at age 24 or so (I was also really into the more conservative/libertarian sci-fI books, most of which aren’t exactly repositories of excellent prose, either).

      But as you get older, you do develop (hopefully) a better sense of when something does smell rotten. I’m sure you’re correct, and most libertarians do not consider themselves Rand acolytes, as did a young Alan Greenspan (who always claimed to be a sensible centrist). However, if the cruise ship is sinking, and Rand & Greenspan & a libertarian are all in one lifeboat, I am definitely getting in any other lifeboat. I don’t want to be the first one eaten.

      • Sorry, by “24” I meant “14” — major typo there! (I think I was on a 19th-century kick at 24.)

      • The thing about Rand is that she was a narcissist. She was just a libertarian with all the baggage that goes along with that. She was putting on airs in claiming that she had invented a philosophical system. Objectivism is nonsense. But Rand is good in that she exhibits exactly the same kind of arrogance that is typical of libertarians while making the same facile arguments.

    • The biggest problem here is that libertarians usually don’t understand what unstated assumptions they are making. This is why I bring up the non-aggression principle so much. With libertarians, it always assumes a strong belief in private property. In other words: they are begging the question. However, when I bring it up to libertarians, they usually don’t understand it. And when they do, they wave their hands and say that of course private property is given. Libertarians are probably the most annoying people to talk politics to because they are certain of their theoretical foundation without being serious about it.

  8. If you accept the notion that a bank should be able to collect on a loan, you don’t believe in a “free market.” And, really, no such thing will ever exist, not in the manner libertarians describe it. As if it’s like the way particles dance in the universe, a totally majestic independent truth. As I’ve typed before, anyone who buys this bullshit has never been fucked over blind by an evil company. Because, of course, they couldn’t be. They’re too clever to ever lose.

    Rand (who epitomized libertarianism, whether libertarians want to claim her or not) was quite the kooky cat. A real lunatic of the best kind, the sort that’s just rational enough to make her madness seem logical if you follow it all the way. (Paul Ryan does! And lived off public assistance all the way to DC!)

    • James, you might be interested in this little discussion about bundled costs (air fares, cable TV, etc.:
      The site owner is apparently some variety of anarcho-capitalist/free marketer/Libertarian. Anyway he chooses to cast the argument as “Customers are too stupid to figure out how not to get cheated” whereas the reality is “No consumer has enough time and energy to calculate all possible choices and costs even given perfect information (which doesn’t exist)”.

      Someone I read recently calls this the “Time Tax” that we all pay for unregulated business practices (maybe David Graeber?). Dealing with medical insurance is a particularly egregious example of the problem.

      • Thanks for the linked article, even though about five sentences into it I wanted to start slamming my head into a wall. There’s just enough valid criticism of how the cable-TV industry works to make the article somewhat readable, and then insane presumptive-superiority gibberish. Good example of the mindset.

        Everything these assholes assume they’ll get in the libertarian paradise is based on the assumption that other people won’t be as rude. “Why does everyone wait politely in line, when it’s totally possible to run up front, shove some old guy out of the way, and demand you get served first! The other people will complain, but who cares, they’re the brainwashed herd!”

        So the libertarian wants, in fact needs, social norms, needs the brainwashed polite herd. They only win when they can be the clever one who dispenses with such useless formalities. It’s the free rider syndrome.

        I think I steered away from sci-fi as a kid when I read a book of Heinlein’s essays, and started to get that ooky feeling. He was very much into the libertarian mindset. I bought it for awhile, what teenager doesn’t want to identify with writers who are smart & misunderstood! There was just a point where it hit “wait, this is kinda evil…”

        If you haven’t seen it, the movie “Starship Troopers” is an absolute underrated classic. Really top-notch production values, great monster effects, the whole shebang. But the writer and director slyly inserted a criticism of Heinlein’s worldview into the movie, and it utterly puzzled American audiences. “Fighting monsters, good, cute young performers, good, military rah-rah, good…. wait… there’s some stuff in here that suggests fascism? I’m confused.”

        Even most of the cast was unaware of the subtext. Although, the director said, when Neil Patrick Harris showed up in a Nazi trenchcoat, that should have tipped the others off. (It didn’t!)

    • A big problem with libertarians is that they see their philosophy as deductive. But if they weren’t sub-geniuses, they would realize that (1) that is the purvue of math and (2) even supposed deductive systems have problems (as per Gödel). The libertarian system is so filled with unstated assumptions that it would be funny if the philosophy weren’t so pernicious.

      I don’t think it is so much that libertarians don’t accept Rand. Rather, it is that Objectivists don’t accept libertarianism. That’s because Objectivists are no smarter or knowledgeable than libertarians, but they are way more pretentious. They are all completely full of shit without having a clue to this fact.

      I still have a fondness for anarchists because at least they understand that they are loony. Libertarians think they are sober! It’s a hoot! Unfortunately, it’s also terrifying.

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